Last Saturday, to celebrate Father’s Day (and to get us the hell away from our construction zone/kitchen remodel), I took Honest Dad out to a concert. We saw Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit at the Bluebird in Bloomington.  It was our fourth time seeing this band (twice in Columbus, at a little dive called the Rumba Café, where they played to a laughably small audience but took it in stride and rocked our fucking faces off, and once in Cincinnati, at a venue that closed almost immediately after the show). They kick ass. Truly. Isbell is a top notch songwriter. He’s obviously a reader—well-versed in literature and language—and floors me every time with his creative turn of phrase. Several of my favorite lines from his latest album, “Southeastern,” include:

“Jesus loves the sinner

But the highway loves the sin”

 

“And the songs that she sang in the shower

Are stuck in my mind.

Like yesterday’s wine.

Like yesterday’s wine.”

 

“Take my hand

Baby, we’re over land.

I know flying over water makes you cry.

Where’s that liquor cart?

Maybe we shouldn’t start.

But I can’t for the life of me say why.”

He knows the art of subtle storytelling. His best work comes when he uses his songs as a way to explore the characters that, though I’m sure are mostly fictional, come across as real as flesh, blood, soil, and dirt beneath your fingernails. He describes young boys being thrust into adulthood by both the choices that they make and the ones they watch others make, a woman with “sharecropper eyes” dying of cancer, and the grief of losing a “good friend” with a “vandal’s smile.”  Some of his songs will break your goddamn heart, and that’s the truth.

But he’s also just a really good guy, as are all of the other guys in the band (Remember, we saw them twice in a TINY little bar. I’ve exchanged pleasantries with all of them at one point—with the exception of Sadler Vaden, the relative new member—and I have quite the crush on the bass player, Jimbo Hart. He’s got a great smile that he’s flashed at me several times while I danced like a fool and sang all the words by heart. Plus, he’s an awesome player. I like bass players. Honest Dad played bass in his band for years. What can I say? I’ve got a thing for guys who can keep a groove.). Totally unpretentious, Isbell would probably blush all kinds of adorable red if he actually read this review. (You would, Jason. You’ve got a little bit of a baby face, and you know it.) In the grand tradition of singer/songwriters, Isbell is surprisingly shy once you take his guitar away. I once sat at the same picnic table with him for twenty minutes, close enough to smell the freshness of the soap on his skin, in complete silence, both of us chain smoking and trying desperately to pretend that the other person wasn’t there.

But it’s exactly that kind of awkwardness that I and so many of his fans find immensely endearing. Isbell is the best kind of musician: he does it because he loves it, because he has stories to tell, because his music moves him, compels him. And because he’s hella good at it. Honest Dad and I have been rooting for him since “discovering” his music around 2007, right after his first solo album, “Sirens of the Ditch” came out. We were simultaneously bummed and elated when, after releasing “Here We Rest” in 2011 (an album that garnered massive critical acclaim, and really marked Isbell’s maturation as a songwriter), we realized that he’d never come and play the Rumba in Columbus again. We’d never be able to stand on the floor, next to the eight-inch risers that passed for a stage, and shake his hand, congratulating him on an excellent set. This Saturday, while we walked up to the Bluebird, we both exclaimed with joy, “Hey! It’s a tour bus!” When we saw Isbell before, he and the band were taking turns driving a 12-passenger white van that (according to his highly entertaining Twitter account) broke down about every other day, stranding them and their gear on the lonely highways in between venues.  Those guys did the hard time that comes with being dedicated musicians today. They toured endlessly. They slept sporadically. They drank profusely. They loved prodigiously. Then, they picked up their guitars, and tried to play the best damn show of their lives. Every single night.

When Beck released the song “Blue Moon” from his new album “Morning Phase,” I looked at Honest Dad and said, “I’m so happy that while I was growing up, Beck grew up too. He’s not trying to pretend that he’s still just a kid with two turntables and a microphone. He’s an adult. I love it.” The same can be said of Isbell and his fans. We’re growing up together. We’re still able to carry a nostalgic torch for the young punks we used to be, but when we’re done doing that, we have to get right home because the babysitter has cross country practice in the morning. On Saturday, when Isbell played his 2004 song, “Never Gonna Change,” it was played with his typical energy and screaming guitar work, but there was also a knowing, wry smile that accompanied it. We all danced and sang along, pumping our fists in the air and shaking our heads. Defiant. Young. Stupid. Giving the finger to authority.  For those five minutes, transported by the music and the energy, we all believed that we were never going to change. But then the song ended, and I laughed in spite of myself. Because we all had changed. And we are all the better for it. The changes that our younger selves had feared so intensely had come, and left us all wondering why we had fought them for so long.

On Saturday, there were two large bottles of water sitting next to Jason’s microphone, instead of a fifth of Jack (Isbell’s journey to sobriety is well-documented in other interviews that he’s conducted). When he sang “I sobered up. / I swore off that stuff. / Forever this time” the audience, mostly full of other married couples enjoying their Father’s Day date nights, burst into uproarious applause. Because we’re all still rooting for you. The new you. The growing up you. When Isbell admits (as he freely does) to the stumbling blocks that he’s encountered on the way to the latest version of himself as a person and an artist, the fans respond. Because we’re having the same struggles. Monogamy. Adulthood. Responsibility. Shifting around uncomfortably within who we really are, and holding on by our fingertips to who we really want to be.

It was hard to see the band play, knowing that I wasn’t the lone girl in the middle of an almost-empty bar, dancing and singing along to every song. Knowing that I wouldn’t have the chance to sit uncomfortably next to him, frantically collecting, then immediately dismissing every single conversation starter that I thought of (“I’m a big fan.” “Tell me about the South.” “You’re taller than I thought.” “Which one of Faulkner’s novels is your favorite?” “Thank you. Just. Thank you.”).  His success is my lost opportunity, I suppose.

But it’s everyone else’s gain.

 

<Sidebar>I’d be remiss if I failed to mention Isbell’s incredibly talented, fiddle-playing, James Joyce-reading, sometimes-band-mate, songwriting wife, Amanda Shires-Isbell. Isbell’s “Cover Me Up,” is a song written for her. It’s basically a perfect love song. Up there with Leonard Cohen’s “Halleluiah,” the Allman Brothers’ “Melissa,” and Elton John’s “Your Song.” Though I haven’t met her yet, she seems like the coolest dork ever, and I sometimes think that it would be fun to sit with her, discuss Modernist literature, and binge-watch old episodes of 30 Rock on Netflix. Call me up any time, Amanda. Any time.</Sidebar>

<Sidebar 2.0>Consider this my formal invitation, 400 Unit. If you ever find yourselves in Bloomington, Indiana. I’ve got a 5-bedroom house, a music room stuffed with guitars and amps designed and built by my husband, and I make a mean batch of fajitas. Stop by. Take a load off. Sleep. Do nothing. Just be. Consider us your traveling musician hostel. Minus the strange smells and German tourists.</Sidebar>

 

Ready to ROCK! . . . While breastfeeding my daughter. Oh, yes I did.

Ready to ROCK! . . . While breastfeeding my daughter. Oh, yes I did.

I’m not getting anything from writing this. Nobody even knows that I’m writing this. I like to support musicians. And I think that everyone needs to get away from their computers and go watch some live shows. Now. Go. Seriously. Now.

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